A Summary of Lowell Candidate Forums

Lowell general municipal election will be held on November 2nd. Khmer Post USA collaborated with LTC, Lowell Sun News, and Lowell Votes to host a series of candidate forums from September 27 to October 14. City Council candidates were divided into groups of 6 candidates per session. Questions were generated from the collaborative partners and from the public.

Candidates present were: District 1 (Pawtuckville) Incumbents: Rodney Elliott and Dan Rourke; District 2 (Centralville) Candidates: Robert Gignac and Corey Robinson; District 3 (Belvidere) Incumbents: Mayor John Leahy and Councilor Bill Samaras; District 4 (Downtown, Back Central, parts of Pawtuckville & Centralville) Candidates: Wayne, Jenness and Ryan Rourke; District 5, (Sacred Heart, part of South Lowell and Highland) Candidates: Kim Scott and Tooch Van; District 6, (Lower Highland) Incumbent: Sokhary Chau and Candidate Justin Ford; District 7, (Acre) Candidates: Dave Oullette and Paul Ratha Yem; District 8 (Highland/part of Sacred Heart) Candidates: Ty Chum and Erik Gitscher.

City Council At-Large — Incumbents: John Drinkwater, Vesna Nuon, and Rita Mercier. Candidates: Bobby Tugbiyele and Deb Belanger.

The first two questions were the same for school committee and city council candidates while the remaining four questions were slightly different in every session. A summary below is including the first two questions and with the remaining 4 questions from the city council candidate forums.

Question 1
Are you vaccinated and what do you think of how the city handled the Covid-19 pandemic?

All candidates were vaccinated and thought the city of Lowell did a good job in handling the Covid-19 response. One school committee member Mike Dillion has not been vaccinated and is also against children wearing masks in school.

Question 2
Do you believe racism is a public health crisis?

This question stems from an event that took place last year, in which many organizations in Lowell came together as a group called ”Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Consortium-Lowell with a signed petition from more than 1,000 organizations and individuals that supported addressing the systemic racism and demanded that city council declare racism is a public health crisis. Lowell Mayor Leahy, Councilor Vesna Nuon and Councilor John Drinkwater voted for it but the declaration did not pass, as six other city councilors rallied for another resolution which Councilor Rodney Elliott said “a road map outlined the measures that we should take. This administration has responded to most, if not all, requests made by DEI. That included diversity training to all employees, citizen advisory committee, and continue with hiring practices in the city to make our workforce more reflective of our community as well as boards and commissions”. He believes there is social injustice but racism is not a public health crisis.

Part of the DEI consortium demand was that the city must identify the appropriate fund for programs that will address equity and inclusion.

The demand was met with rejection by a majority of the council. Councilor Rita Mercier said “there are so many organizations in Lowell that we cannot simply fund the DEI consortium, not on our police dime.”

Robert Gignac, district candidate, said there was not any part of the DEI demand that asked to defund the police and he would support the declaration that racism is a public crisis, if he was to sit on the city council. “It’s the least we can do, to begin the serious discussion and take actions to improve the quality life of the residents” he said. Councilor Bill Samaras insisted there was a demand asking to defund the police and that’s why he didn’t support it.

Bobby Tugbiyele, at-large candidate, said this council had a chance to do something right but it didn’t.

Mayor Leahy said he’s proud that although his motion to declare that racism is a public health crisis did not pass at the city council, it passed at the school committee and he’s pleased to see many ongoing changes since.

Every candidate seemed to understand this a little differently, according to their experiences and interpretation. Most candidates agreed that racism is a public health crisis from the inequality in healthcare, to housing and hiring practices, to black male getting pulled over by the police, and to health expert such as CEO of Lowell Community Health Susan Levine who spoke at the city council in support of the DEI Consortium.

Ty Chum, a Cambodian American candidate for district 8 said he does not believe racism is a public health crisis. “Many other crisis should be a public health crisis, such as domestic and sexual violence, and suicide, a #1 leading cause of death amongst teen” he said. Stacy Thompson, the first black woman candidate for school committee said “racism is a public health crisis. I’ve lived it. We spoke to the scientists and they explain how racism affect people like me in a very real way. When I walk on Merrimack street, someone screamed at me an ’N’ word, and I have to go to work, and be friendly, and have that knot in my stomach all day long”.

Question 3
What is your stand on the ballot question about having voters elect the Mayor?

At-large candidates agreed that the Mayor should be elected by the people. Councilor Rita Mercier said it was her motion to put the question on the ballot, shall it pass, she’ll honor it. Meanwhile Councilor Vesna Nuon said if elected, his first motion will be about setting term limits on the city council. “I strongly feel that you don’t want to have a King or Queen of a neighborhood, at the same time, you want to bring more voices and ideas how to serve the district better. Just have one person all the time is not right, that discussion need to be had” said Vesna.

Bobby Tugbiyele touted that if elected, his goal is to increase the voter turnout up to 25%. “You want to get the right people on the bus” he said.

District candidates are in favor of the ballot question.

Question 4
What would you do to replace old infrastructure in the city?

This question broke down for districts and at-large. Each candidate focus on their district to address sidewalk issues. “We’re constantly doing roads and bridges, as you can see there’s a lot of traffic right now, but it will improve” said Mayor Leahy.

“We should stop doing small studies here and there when there is an issue, and look globally and what we can do, to long term plan and finance in addressing these issues” said Robert Gignac, candidate for district 2.

With the $77 millions from the American Rescue Plan, Rodney Elliot (district 1) said “I hope to use this funding money to address a lot of infrastructure in the city, including the internet access, what we did learn was that children didn’t have equitable internet access during the pandemic.”

Question 5
The preliminary election turnout was low, only 9%, what do you think of the lawsuit accomplishment, if any?

The candidates agreed that turnout was low, but were hopeful it will get better because it’s the first year. Ty Chum district 7 candidate said it has allowed him to run, otherwise running at-large would be very hard to balance the time between work and family, while going door knocking all over the city. Money is also an issue that would have prevented him from running at-large.

Corey Robinson candidate for district 2 said “in the preliminary in Centerville, we had a lot of people come out who were not necessary involved in the politics. It’ll take some growing pains in the whole city, but I think the opportunity exist for our residents to key in and demand. They get to know the people that are sitting on the seat to advocate for them. Having shrunk down to district size, accountability is a big factor, in my opinion.”

Question 6
What would you do to help revitalize businesses and/or to make your district a cultural hub destination?

Downtown —“The infrastructure made it hard for people to come into downtown” said Wayne Jenness, district 4 (Downtown) candidate. “Business in downtown cannot survive with only residents who live downtown. It needs to be easier for people coming to downtown, not just for people with cars, but people who want to walk from the Acre or Belvidere or ridding bikes up the trails for lunch” he said.

Incumbent Bill Samaras, district 3, said “with $77 Millions from the American Rescue Plan, we have to look at housing and health needs, create more grants for small businesses and become more active in downtown to create more excitement to bring people to downtown. We have to ensure the quality of life in the city is enhanced, we now have money to help do that, when you improve the quality of life of people, people become more interested and take part of what goes on in the city. We need people to work together, create vision, opportunities and jobs.”

Cambodia Town —Transformative Development Initiative Grant, almost every gateway city received this grant at this point of time, City of Lowell applied for Hamilton Canal district and Industrial Park, both have been rejected, Kim Scott district 5 candidate said “Cambodia Town should be a project for the city to apply for this funding and give it an identity that it deserves especially there is such a large Southeast Asian community”.

District 7 has a portion of Cambodia Town. Paul Ratha Yem said “we met with the previous administration to have a Cambodia Town sign on the Lowell Connector. When you come down from 495, people can take the exit and the sign will take you to Cambodia Town. We’ll be a tourist destination”.

Sokhary Chau, incumbent for district 6 said “I have made a motion to have a sign off the highway and we’re talking about that and we hope to get a gate for entrance to Cambodia Town. It’s a gateway to connecting the Southeast Asian area to downtown and the rest of the city. It’s a welcome area. We want to make it a tourist destination, not just for people in Massachusetts, but people from all over the country, and the world to come to visit Cambodia Town”.

In closing, the charter change has shifted the power as voters will vote only one candidate for each district on November 2nd. It is for certain that there will be 4-5 new faces elected to the city council from Downtown, Centralville, the Acre and South Lowell, as each district has new candidates. This will make significant change to the Lowell political landscape.